Will College Sell Students?

After President Obama’s speech at the University of Buffalo yesterday, there was a firestorm of commentary. The Chronicle notes the mixed reviews of the proposals and public college endorsements. The President touted a new ratings system that would be tied to aid and therefore, the net cost of attending an institution. That ratings system was discussed in the New York Times and was also mentioned on the Roosevelt Institute Blog.

Reform in the cost/aid ratio is a long overdue. Higher education is nearly unattainable for most without some kind of loan package. Access and net cost for higher education is related and the discussion is how to make that more fair. Perhaps some of our elite institutions are hiding their value behind ultra selectivity. Moreover, internal grade inflation problems have not gone undetected in some of these elite universities. Princeton had to deal with those charges head-on.

I am a supporter of fair competition. Obviously an institution like the University of Chicago that charges its students in excess of $60,000 a year in total cost is unfair if it is to compete with Pennsylvania Highlands Community College. Rather, the measure of competition will be based on “value” tied to “performance” measured by a “rating system.” Put a different way: “Quantification goes hand-in-hand with competition: once we’ve assigned everyone a number, why not force them to fight over scarce resources? That’ll clearly improve everyone’s performance!”

The idea is to create more transparency for consumer choice and to tilt subsidies to higher performing schools. This sounds reasonable in theory. However, we won’t know what any of this will look like until a rating system is devised. That’s where things can get really sticky, really fast. For example, such a system may have unintended consequences for the community college system which is currently the most affordable source of higher education.

The plan is not unlike the Spellings Plan which was highly criticized by accreditation bodies and universities alike. Obama’s plan includes better transitions from secondary to post-secondary schools, consumer transparency, and value based on performance-based outcomes. But the Obama plan also includes incentives for institutions to enroll lower-income students which the Spellings Plan did not.

Skeptics of the Spellings Plan were concerned that the principles behind No Child Left Behind would be applied to higher education. The Obama plan re-introduces those principles of ratings, value-added, return on investment, and performance. There is cause to be concerned at how these metrics will look and how they will impact college choice. These are symptomatic issues.

The deeper philosophical issue is this: When we say “value” in education, what do we mean? North Carolina governor Pat McCrory infamously said that aid would be given to state institutions “not based upon how many butts in seats but how many of those butts can get jobs.” The value of education in this language is clear – higher education is about jobs. Learning is in the service of the economy. If higher education is not creating an able workforce, then why would we have it?

The Association of Private Sector Colleges in their publication America’s Private Sector Colleges and Universities: Generating Real Value for Students and Society notes that, “By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs will require some postsecondary education.” Value here is measured by return on investment. Do we place students in jobs that offset the price of their education? Are we then able to use education to place them in jobs that help grow the economy? The President’s language seems to follow lock-step with this philosophy. Here are some of the metrics he mentioned:

How much debt does the average student leave with?  How easy it is to pay off?  How many students graduate on time?  How well do those graduates do in the workforce?  Because the answers will help parents and students figure out how much value a college truly offers.

Certainly employment is vital and is one reason many students seek a higher education. But there is a basic principle that we must not overlook. Is education for the end of creating a workforce? The political rhetoric seems to point in this direction. If the focus is on jobs, “The narrow educational focus on economic development is alarming because it places the market in control of the curriculum” (Ayers, 2005, p. 546). So who is truly controlling the end of education other than market forces and the government’s assumed responsibility to create skilled labor?

Education for this end has lost its understanding of value as the cultivation of the mind and the development of truth, beauty, and goodness as an ends in themselves. Such endeavor has no short-term return on investment in a society that values instant gratification. Value in this kind of society is measured by how much money one can make, and how much money one can deposit back into the economic system. Education by sleight-of-hand is in danger of serving this political agenda that could undermine the nature of education itself.

Humanities and music are in themselves without value based on return on investment alone. Art, philosophy, and even some of the more specialized and abstract scientific studies offer little immediate economic value. Why waste money on these ventures? With the creation of labor as the foundation of education we need to be prepared to answer these questions. Is this the political agenda higher education should serve? Is higher education here to create human capital that can be sold to the economy as viable labor? As Richard Shaull wrote in the foreword to Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

There is no such thing as a neutral educational process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.


Ayers, D. F. (2005). Neoliberal ideology in community college mission statements: A critical discourse analysis. The Review of Higher Education, 28(4), 527-549.

Freire, Paulo. (2000) Pedagogy of the oppressed /New York : Continuum. p. 34.

6 Ways to Plan for College Costs

Think of college costs in terms of cars.

When we shop for used cars we often look at the Blue Book Value. It is a good way to get a bearing on how much a car is worth before we put down an offer. Putting education costs in terms of what we pay for a car gives a little perspective. At least, it helps me. With this in mind, these are estimates of the total cost of an education based on institutional data submitted by the institutions to the National Center for Education Statistics. If you want to go to a religious school and then seek a call in the ministry, you will have to pay. These are costs for each year.

  • Not-for-profit, four-year college = Lexus – BMW
  • Not-for-profit, four-year, religious college = Cadillac ATS
  • Not-for-profit, public, out-of-state = Buick
  • Not-for-profit, public, in-state = Toyota Corolla
  • Theological Schools and Bible Colleges = Chevy Cruze
  • Two-year Public / Community College = Toyota Yaris or a Chevy Spark

Of course, you can upgrade if you shop for a used car, but let’s not take the metaphor too far. Another way to frame this is that you are putting down for a second mortgage and it could cost you more up front. The point is that this is expensive stuff – even if you happen to have enough cash and credit to accumulate four cars over four years. The following are average yearly total cost values.

Total Cost of College 2011-2012

Source: U.S. Department of Education. Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics.

These total cost estimates are what you can expect to pay out for the whole deal. It is what we call the “sticker price.” These costs are most often paid for  in loans, grants, scholarships, and other forms of aid if you can’t front the money out-of-pocket. Any of those financial sources will feed this total cost in some way.

Not many people are buying cars out-of-pocket these days. Only rarely do people pay for education out-of-pocket. The good news is that the cost of an education can go down based on the discount rate and aid an institution can offer. This is called the “net cost” which I don’t factor in here. Be that as it may, the first place to start planning is this total cost to give us a bearing on what to expect. (Maybe in the future I will also post on the net cost for comparison.)

I am not writing this to discourage anyone from shooting for that BMW. Anything is possible! However, because these numbers are so high and getting higher, attending college needs a long-term plan. Some tips:

  • Talk about college soon. Visit a few colleges during or even before high school. Start getting in the mind of your adolescent to help her find out what she wants. This will help you to form a set of goals. If you want to go to institution A, here is what you need to do in the next few years to get it. Religion is a factor here. Religious institutions are very expensive, regardless of the branding. Think about careers. What career plans will land a job and for how much? What risks are you willing to take?
  • Plan early academically. That first day of class freshman year through the end of junior year in high school are absolutely critical just to get in the higher education front door. This is a competitive place. It is important to up the momentum in the Senior year, filling out applications, and exploring grant and scholarship opportunities. If enrollment continues to flatten or even decline as it has over the past couple of years, expect costs to jump even more than expected. Don’t get freakishly obsessed with the planning, but don’t sit on it either.
  • Look for grants and scholarships. Grants and scholarships are at a premium since it is straight cash going in to the bill. There are all sorts of grants both small and large for students left by alumni and benefactors. Getting these may mean serious effort by the student and the family, but it can be well worth it. But without paying attention to the above, you will have less of an opportunity to cash in on these valuable sources.
  • Explore some of the other campuses. For a four-year public institution these are good ways to get your foot in the door. You may also find that you like it enough you want to stay! These campuses that offer seamless transfers into the main campus which can be more expensive and selective.
  • There is no shame in community college. If your kid does not know what to do with life, send him to community college to “figure it out.” Don’t let good money follow bad. These colleges are getting better even if they are always on the public funding chopping block with other sources of public education. With public education clearly being a cheaper option, governments cutting education funding is a damn shame. Get in on it and maybe even get more involved in the local government to have a say in what happens with your tax money.
  • Get a job in higher education. I chose to work in higher education long before I had kids. When my first son came into the world only then did I see the benefit of working in higher education: tuition discounts. In many real ways that is the core of my college funding. This, of course, is not why I work in higher education, but it is a large reason why I like working at an institution as solid as Penn State! If you want to go that route parent, do it early. These benefits often do not kick in for a couple of years after date of hire.

Where a car depreciates in value a degree appreciates. That’s the good news. Education is an investment. Fronting the cost of that investment is the challenge. As your son or daughter enters high school, the grades start going on the transcript are the same grades admissions committees will review in three to four years.

Have a chat about the future. Come up with a plan now. Waiting can cost you big time in the future.

Philly Debt and Safety

An aside to the previous post on unsafe school environments and online education.

Philly is in a $50 million budget shortfall and has taken to political pan-handling to make up that budget with soft threats to start the academic year late. Why? Let’s hear it from the superintendent.

“I want to be clear about why the $50 million matters now: $50 million allows us to tell parents that when their child is walking through the hallways, eating lunch or at recess, an adult will be supervising them. It allows us to tell parents that counselors will be available to serve children in our largest and neediest schools, and that an assistant principal will be on hand to resolve any disciplinary issues that keep children from learning. … No principal can run a 3,000-student high school—much less a 400-student elementary school—on their own. They need support, and we have an obligation to provide them with the staff and resources they need. Parents also need reassurance that a school has what it needs to serve their child.”

Maybe we really aren’t talking about learning and curriculum anymore.

We are talking about the learning environment and the raw “stuff” of an education system.

Can $50 million more meet the superintendent’s goals this year much less long-term?

Source: https://webapps.philasd.org/news/display/articles/1766

Bullied Students Go Online

Online learning is growing. It is growing quickly compared to other enrollment where overall college enrollment has dropped. This is true both in the higher education sector as well as in the K-12 sector. The question is why are students and parents continue to flock to it?

There are a few boilerplate reasons consistently cited: flexibility of schedules, no commute, workplace subsidization, easy means to degree completion, etc. I am interested in a few other reasons for this growth and one struck me as a statistic we should look at more closely in the coming years: bullying.

Check this out.


That is a lot of desire for change in environment. What is going on in our schools then? It might not be just the curriculum but the places we are sending our kids. Would you send your kid to a babysitter’s house where you really aren’t sure what happens there? All you know is that the parent comes in once in a while to make sure things are ok. Most of the time the babysitter doesn’t have time to watch all of the kids and the kids are free to do what they please.

Yet that’s what happens in schools all over the country.

Our kids go there for up to 10 hours a day if they are in extra-curricular activities. We don’t get to see what is happening there. If this data is correct, as a society we are trusting the school less and less to offer a safe learning and social environment for our kids.

Think about it. What kind of environment are you comfortable leaving your kids with?

During the week, they are there more than they are with you.

Source: http://www.jsonline.com/sponsoredarticles/education/growth-of-k12-online-education-infographic8073950101-218669211.html